By Jake Donovan
From the moment it was announced that Glen Johnson would be taking on Andrzej Fonfara on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights earlier this month, all talk focused on how much the old road warrior had much left in the tank.
On fight night, the majority of the conversation focused on Johnson’s performance. Once the decision was announced, Johnson continued to dominate the boxing news outlets, whether it was discussing the fact that he lost or that he decided to retire shortly after the fight.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Fonfara actually won the fight. So much focus was on the former light heavyweight champion, that few in the sport took notice that a new star was born in the Chicagoland area.
“I thought the show was well received,” said a pleased Dominic Pesoli, whose 8 Count Productions company has promoted Fonfara since he arrived in Chicago from his native Poland. “I anticipated a good turnout, especially from the Polish community. A lot of people thought we were crazy for putting him in against Johnson, but Andrzej made all of us look like geniuses.”
Fonfara managed a unanimous decision in the evening’s main event, marking the first time in more than a decade that Johnson decisively lost outside of world title fights. It was enough to convince the old veteran to call it a career, of the belief that he needs to move on if he can no longer win fights on this level.
Exactly what level that is remains an unanswered question. Fonfara is now unbeaten in his past 13 fights, including 10 straight since taking his 6’2” frame up to the light heavyweight division.
That Fonfara is now fighting at a weight more in line with his body structure has proven to be a huge difference in his career. The rail-thin Polish boxer suffered two defeats within an eight-fight span earlier in his career, including an embarrassing 2nd round knockout loss to Derrick Findley on ESPN2 in July’ 08. Little to nothing was thought of his career potential, other than as a future opponent.
Four years later, a legitimate light heavyweight prospect has developed – possibly even a light heavyweight contender in the very near future.
“It’s two completely fighters when you talked about the fighter I first signed to the one I have now,” Pesoli said of Fonfara’s career progress. “Years ago, Sam Colonna (noted trainer in the Chicago area who serves as Fonfara’s chief second) told me this kid is a beast. I’d watch him fight and wondered where he was getting this from.
“But that was when he was still fighting at 147 early in his career. Even at 160, he still looked out of place. Once he got to 175, it was more a natural body weight level for him. It’s a big difference.”
As he listened to the passion exuded by the 6,000 or so in attendance at the UIC Pavilion, Pesoli couldn’t help but think about how far his fighter has come along at the box office as well.
“Andrzej has turned into a one-man franchise,” Pesoli states, with the gross receipts to back up that claim. “He legitimized himself into a future world champion. When we first started, he was lucky to sell a single ticket. In the past 5-6 years he grew his fan base to what it is now.
“After the Johnson fight, his fan base will grow even larger. He’s now a legitimate Top 10 contender.”
Pesoli was well aware that Fonfara needed this win to prove that very point. The 24-year old looked the part, but needed the breakout opportunity in order to convince the masses.
The same could be said of stablemate Ivan Popoca, who fought on the undercard. Popoca was coming off of 15-month layoff and a knockout loss to Ruslan Provodnikov, but still makes for good theatre, which was why he was granted the televised co-feature slot. A date with faded former lightweight champ Jose Luis Castillo appeared to be the perfect opportunity to win and look spectacular.
Castillo offered a turn back the clock performance, dropping Popoca early and drawing blood from cuts over both eyes in consecutive rounds. Popoca fought back valiantly but was eventually stopped in eight rounds.
Despite the upset loss in the co-feature, Pesoli didn’t seem concerned about throwing either of his kids in over their head. Fonfara proved that point in the main event, an outcome that hardly surprised him.
“The first 4-5 rounds against Castillo would be dangerous for Ivan,” Pesoli believed all along. “But I didn’t think (Castillo) had the wherewithal to go the full ten. The way Ivan fights, I thought he would pick it up in the end. I was proud of Ivan’s effort. Even in the loss, he showed tremendous heart.
“The truth is that I thought both of my guys had a chance. They were intended as step up fights but came at the right time. I wasn’t shocked that Andrzej beat Glen Johnson. I know the other side was pretty confident that he was too much for my kid, but I felt otherwise. Of course, I kept that to myself, as I didn’t want (Johnson’s team) questioning why I was confident my guy would win.”
The trick now is where to go from here with Fonfara’s career. Another televised date would be ideal, though not entirely realistic. ESPN2 Friday Night Fights ends its 2012 season in mid-August, while HBO and Showtime have become selective in the promoters with which it has done business.
Because Chicago remains an overlooked fight market, Fonfara and his handlers are now faced with the dilemma of going idle while awaiting a big fight, or staying busy though against competition that would mark a step backward from what he accomplished earlier this month.
“We don’t want to go backwards, but we also strategically have to think about what’s next. ESPN has expressed interest in having him back on. We’d love to be back on but the reality is that it won’t happen until they return next year.
“There have been preliminary offers by the (Beibut) Shumenov camp but nothing concrete. There are not a lot of guys left that make sense. If you look at the guys above him in the major rankings (Fonfara is rated #10 in Boxingscene’s light heavyweight rankings), none of those guys would take that fight. It doesn’t make sense for them to fight him.”
All that can be done in the meantime is develop Fonfara into a big enough star to where he can call his own shots. The career progression in the ring and at the box office suggests he’s well on his way.
“I was incredibly proud of Andrzej’s performance and the crowd that turned out,” Pesoli states. “Sam Colonna designed a terrific fight plan. Glen is a closer and Andrzej has only been 10 rounds twice. There were questions about his chin. He fought at a weight he couldn’t make (early in his career), but had a lot of heart and potential. We’re looking at another fight or two before fighting for a world title.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox